06 April, 2006

The Winter Mantle, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Edition reviewed, Time Warner, 2002, ISBN 0-7515-2958-3.

The Winter Mantle is set in England and Normandy, with an excursion to Asia Minor, in 1067-1098. It focuses on two marriages, that of Waltheof, English Earl of Huntingdon, to Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, and that of their daughter Matilda to the Norman knight Simon de Senlis. All the major characters are historical figures.

The novel is strong on characterisation and relationships. The four main leads, Waltheof, Judith, Simon and Matilda are all individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. They are not necessarily likeable all the time - there were occasions when I would have liked to slap Waltheof for his indecision and would have liked to shake Judith out of her self-righteousness - but that makes them more real. The novel explores two contrasting marriages, both made for political reasons but developing into quite different relationships. Waltheof and Judith are hopelessly unsuited from the beginning, despite their physical attraction to each other - theirs is a carnal marriage that begins in happiness and ends in misery. Simon and Matilda seem to be less extreme characters and their relationship matures differently. As well as the two marriages, the novel also explores an extramarital affair, relationships between parents and their children (over more than one generation), and the friendship between Simon and Waltheof.

Another strength of the novel is its attention to historical detail, and the presence of a helpful Author’s Note. I don’t have specialist knowledge of early Norman England, so I’m not in a position to pronounce on historical accuracy in any great detail, but it feels convincing. The details of everyday life in the period are lovingly described, from architecture to clothing to furniture to food, providing a great deal of period colour.

The novel has an episodic structure with gaps of many years between some sections, so you do have to pay attention to the dates and locations given in the chapter headings. I personally would have liked much more on the political background. The Harrying of the North, Edgar Atheling’s flight to Scotland, rebellions against William the Conqueror and his son William Rufus, and the First Crusade are all touched on as part of the background to the development of the central relationships. I personally found it frustrating that this wide canvas was only hinted at. But part of the value of historical fiction is that it can provoke curiosity about a period I didn’t know I was interested in, so it may prompt me to go and do some research. For example, I’m now curious as to how Matilda met and married David of Scotland in later life; was this connected to the marriage of Henry I to Margaret Atheling’s daughter Edith? I’m also mildly intrigued by Waltheof’s polar bear cloak (the Winter Mantle of the title) and wonder if it really existed; it’s the kind of valuable garment that could just possibly have been mentioned in a will. Of such intriguing details is historical fiction made.

A well-researched tale of emotional relationships in early Norman England, with lots of historical colour and detail.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?


Bernita said...

There's always a conflict, isn't there?
The researcher part of us wants the whole historical panoply, while the reader part wants the personal story drama and never mind the politics.
It does sound as if this writer managed the balance well.

Gabriele Campbell said...

You had to do it, hadn't you?

Make me buy another book. But since it's avaliable via Amazon.de, how could I resist? ;-)

Rick said...

The use of real people raises an interesting para-philosophical issue. Any use of a real historical person is a reconstruction, but in well-documented eras there's enough to go by to draw a picture that would be recognizable to the people who knew the person in life.

But in the early Norman era, I'd suspect we know only the barest "who's who" facts about these people - dates of birth, marriage, and death, who they married, and children who grew to adulthood and inherited, married, or entered the church. Even these may be uncertain, and we might not have record (frex) of all their children. We wouldn't know what their married life was like unless something dramatic enough to be recorded happened, such as a wife who became some other prominent man's mistress.

This is no criticism of the book, but it's an odd thought that people who knew the main characters in life might say "no, no, they weren't at all like that!"

Sarah Johnson said...

I enjoyed The Winter Mantle and think you gave a fair assessment, although I wasn't as bothered by the narrower scope of the novel. Juliet Dymoke's Of the Ring of Earls portrays Judith similarly, though I didn't think her (Dymoke's) overall characterization was as skilled as Chadwick's. (Hers was a shorter novel as I recall.) I hadn't, though, known much of anything about Matilda, and it got me curious to learn more about her life.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I apologise! At least it's available in paperback!

Bernita - for me, the personal story drama and the politics are inextricably intermingled. People's lives and the choices they face and the actions open to them are circumscribed by the times they live in and the events they experience. To take a classic story element, a woman married into a foreign kingdom (or the other side of a political divide) has her life hugely influenced if political events put her husband and family on opposite sides of a conflict, in ways that wouldn't have been an issue if that conflict hadn't happened.

Sarah - ditto for me regarding Matilda (I didn't take as much of a liking to Judith). I wonder if anyone's done her marriage into Scotland? I bet it's in one of Nigel Tranter's books somewhere.

Rick - that's a fascinating issue for anyone writing historical fiction featuring real people. I think it applies in any age, even when there's quite a lot of documentation to work with, because you can never really know someone's character in as much detail as you need for a novel. No matter how copious the records, you can only imagine what was going on in someone's head. Look at how differently different authors portray Elizabeth I, for example. From the Author's Note, your surmise about the scarcity of details in early Norman England is pretty accurate. In my period, 7th-century Britain, I have even less to work with - about three sentences in Bede span half my hero's life. And yes, it does give me a creepy feeling wondering if I'm being fair to the people and their society and whether I ought to have the temerity to write about them at all. That's one reason why I value historical accuracy so highly; I feel there's a sort of duty of care to be as accurate as possible about the things that are known (if any).
It's an issue that just doesn't arise in alternate/invented history (or whatever we're going to call it), and that's got a lot to be said for it.

Sarah Johnson said...

Tranter's got a novel called David the Prince, which I haven't read, but it has to mention Matilda to some degree.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I've already spoken to you by e-mail off blog about your review which as I said to you, I thought was balanced and fair - thank you :-)
I'm dropping in on the knowing historical characters question because next time I get around to my own blog I'm going to be writing something about one of the slightly 'off the wall' ways I now conduct some of my research. I've only started doing it recently, and I know many people will think it's a load of rot, but I have been astonished by the results. Basically I have a very good friend who claims the ability to 'Remote View' i.e. to be able, given a historical person, a place and a rough date, to be able to 'look' back into the past. I've been using her abilities for the past year and a half now and I've taken copious notes which are helping to flesh out my current projects. I use primary sources and the main secondary sources alongside the remote viewing material, but thus far it has proven astonishingly accurate on the things that can be corroborated and nothing has so far jarred on the things that can't. If anyone wants to see a sample of the remote viewing notes, drop me a line and I'll e-mail one to you. At first I was hugely sceptical, but the more the evidence has built up, session by session, the more that scepticism crumbles.
Whether the above is 'real' or a load of rot, I do take Rick's point about us in the 21st Century not knowing characters who lived so long ago. I think the best an author can do if they are going to attempt to portray that person is to use what facts are known and use integrity as the watchword.

Susan :-)

ali said...

Margeret the Queen by Nigel Tranter is set around that time, obviously focusing on what was happening in Scotland.

I could be completely wrong, but was David a hostage at the English court?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol Carla, I was joking.

No one forced me to click the Send Order button. I should never have gone near Amazon.de in the first place. Years ago. :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

I personally found the character of Judith so incredibly annoying that I couldn't continue, though I rather liked Waltheof. I lost all sympathy for her when she threatened to have her maid whipped.
I'm not a fan of Chadwick's writing style - she uses far too many adverbs for my taste, so we get 'said disdainfully', 'said loftily', 'said brusquely' and 'facetiously crossed herself' just in the first two pages, though I have to admit she doesn't over-use them to the extent that Philippa Gregory does. As I commented here once before, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of detail in Chadwick's novels - I feel I have to wade through it all to try to find the story, though I'm sure lots of people like it.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I know you don't like my writing and I respect your right not to. We're all different. What I would like to ask you though, is why you keep on reading them if you think they're so dire? I've seen a couple of reviews you have posted at Amazon uk and it's obvious from what you have said that you absolutely hate my books and my 'one-dimensional' characters. If I read an author and find I don't get on with their style - Jane Austen for example (sorry folks, I know I'm committing sacrilege (grin) ) then I don't bother to read any more of their novels. What's the point? There are more books in the world than I am ever going to read so why pick up ones I know on balance I am going to loathe, when I could be reading something more to my taste?

Susan the curious. About to re-read Cecelia Holland's Until the Sun Falls after a gap of about 25 years!

Kathryn Warner said...

Susan, as far as I remember the only review I've posted on Amazon about one of your novels is on 'Lords of the White Castle'. I don't think your books are 'dire', far from it - your settings are marvellous, and I certainly don't 'hate' your novels. It would take a lot to make me 'hate' a novel, believe me!

I've tried several of yours (four, to be precise) because I love historical novels, and because they do get such excellent reviews. I thought, well, maybe I didn't enjoy 'Lords' so much, but I was sure that that was an aberration and that I'd get on much better with some of your others. Unfortunately, I didn't: with 'Winter Mantle', 'The Greatest Knight' and 'Shadows and Strongholds', I simply didn't get beyond the first few chapters because, as you so rightly say, what's the point of continuing if you don't like the style, or if you aren't grabbed by the characters and the story? Perhaps this is somehow my 'fault' as you obviously have a lot of dedicated fans, and I keep hoping I'll see what it is that they see about your novels. I respect the huge amount of research that goes into your work, but I have yet to be 'grabbed by the throat' by your novels.

I suppose it's just a question of taste. I've also tried several of Philippa Gregory's novels - for the same reasons that I try yours, that they're hugely popular and get some great reviews - and put them down after a few chapters as I couldn't get into them either. I may well have written a review of one of hers on Amazon - I'm not sure, offhand. I've also written a 2-star review on Amazon of another historical novel, by Will Davenport, which received a number of glowing 5-star reviews. While it was a well-crafted story, I was annoyed by its inaccuracies, and I've also criticised it on another forum. Perhaps I'll find myself having to explain my reasons to Mr Davenport too. And Paul Doherty - I wrote a blog post and an Amazon review that were highly critical of one of his books, so maybe I'll be receiving a message from him too.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you Alianore for your considered reply. I am sorry if you feel irritated at being asked to explain your reasons. I just thought it interesting from a general reader's point of view rather than an author's, as to why a reader would continue to read books they weren't keen on. I wouldn't persevere as far as four myself, especially if I didn't make it past the first few chapters each time but that's me. What about the opinions of others? What do you do if you're not struck on a writer the first time round? Not bother again?
Give them another try, two more tries? Three? How far do you go before you give up?
I must admit that I struggled to get into Dorothy Dunnett for quite a few years - had three attempts at reading The Game of Kings, but suddenly I 'got it' and it was like stepping into a fantastic new world and I devoured her novels after that. Something must have kept pulling me back. Perhaps I wasn't ready for them the first couple of times. Are there any writers people haven't liked initially, but have warmed to at a later date?


Carla said...

Ali - Good point. I've no idea, but David could very well have been a hostage and that could have led to a connection. I liked Margaret the Queen, and as I remember it covered the immediate aftermath of 1066 and Edgar Atheling's presence at the Scottish court, but I think it didn't go far enough forward to cover Matilda's Scottish marriage (if it did, I don't remember it).

Re when to give up on an author, in my case it depends on the balance between what I liked and didn't like about their book(s). If I strongly disliked something specific and if there wasn't something else that I did like, then I'd probably stop at one. If there were other things I liked, though, I'd probably read at least one more of their books, and quite probably I'd carry on indefinitely if I liked more things than I disliked (i.e. if the dislikes were weighed with enough other graces to make them portable). I very rarely give up on a book part way through, because I find many (most?) books get more interesting to me as they go on; the best bits are almost never at the beginning.

Sarah Johnson said...

Funny you should mention Dunnett because she's one of those authors for me. I admitted this to a group of librarians next month and feel much better now :) I've tried three of her novels and even made it all the way through Game of Kings but felt no urge to read the next five. I say I intend to go back to her one day but realistically I'm not sure I will. Too many other books on the TBR pile at the moment.
On the other hand, Cecelia Holland's one I didn't "get" at first (tried The Firedrake, didn't care for it) but I really enjoy her novels now.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I'm with Carla here--if there's something I liked about a book, even if on the whole I didn't care for it, I'll try another one by the same author, at least if I can get it at the library and, in the case of a historical novel, if it concerns a person/place that's of interest to me. Because of this I keep on doggedly reading Philippa Gregory's novels, and I did find her latest, The Constant Princess, to be an improvement over the earlier ones. I wouldn't have read it if I'd had to pay for it instead of getting it at the library, though.

Kathryn Warner said...

Agree with Carla and Susan (Higginbotham) - I'd persevere with an author if I'd only mildly disliked, or simply not enjoyed very much, some of their work. I'll certainly give Will Davenport another go if he writes another historical novel, and I got Gregory's 'The Virgin's Lover' out of the library a few days ago despite not really enjoying her previous ones. After all, the excellent reviews garnered by Davenport and Gregory - and Susan/Elizabeth of course! - have to mean something!

I'm trying to think what would make me hate a novel so much that I'd never pick up anything by that author again. The only example I can think of offhand is one I flicked through in a bookshop a few years ago, and unfortunately ended up reading a scene about a man torturing and murdering two women in the most hideously brutal way:( There's not a lot else that would make me avoid an author forever, I don't think.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Offhand, I can't think of anything that would cause me to avoid an author for all time; after all, I want more books to read, not fewer! Even if a historical novel's shoddily researched or if the characters are 21st-century people in fancy dress, it's possible that the author may mend his or her ways in the future. Not very likely, perhaps, but possible. So I'm usually willing to give the author another chance, at least to the extent of flipping through the book, trying the first few chapters, or reading an excerpt.

I read a book by Pamela Bennetts called Stephen and the Sleeping Saints a while back that totally disgusted me--almost nothing about Stephen, but a lot about a character who got his jollies tormenting and killing people in exceedingly gruesome ways. It was essentially a historical horror novel, I thought (after my stomach quit turning). Yet I'd read another book by the same author that I liked very much. So I haven't given up on her entirely, even though Stephen went to the thrift store straightaway.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I was trying to remember where I'd heard the name Pamela Bennetts before. I went to an ancient reading diary I used to keep and found a reference to one of hers - a Gothic titled One Dark Night, which I had given a 6 out of 10 with the comment 'Readable as all Bennett's novels are, but the plot is melodramatic and not at all believable. She is better at historical books.' Goodness knows what I did read of hers that was historical because the title I mentioned was at the front of the diary, so I have no record of what went before, and my brain cell can't remember of its own accord.

One of my all time favourite Medieval historical reads is Vainglory by Geraldine McCaughrean. It's like a Jean duc de Berry illumination set out in words. She wrote a prequel titled Lovesong, which I couldn't get on with from the start. It was as if another person had written it. On the strength of Vainglory though, I will still read more McCaughrean when I get round to it (old adage about books and time strikes again!)

I usually score authors on a scale of 1-10 and act accordingly.
0-5 and I don't bother with them again. 5-8 I borrow from the library because the books are worth reading but perhaps not buying. 9-10 I auto-buy. I would add that I also use the library for trying new authors.


Kathryn Warner said...

I have one of Pamela Bennetts' novels - 'The She-Wolf', about Isabella, queen of Edward II. It's pretty good, very thin, and far less sympathetic to Isabella than most novels about her are.

Carla said...

I use the library for trying out unfamiliar books/authors, too. They seem to have a much wider range than high street bookshops - I reckon even the branch library in the next village has as many titles as a fair-sized Waterstones and the town library has many times more. If I like a book enough to want to read it again I go and buy a copy to keep.

Gabriele Campbell said...

It depends on why I don't like a book. If it's the style, I'll give up on the author. If it's because of the characters, I might well try another book with different characters. Badly researched historical novels get only one try.

I tend to give up on series after book 3 or 4. Many of them lose what made me like the books and become repetitive, lost in details and with stagnant characters.

I also have very few auto-buy authors. A different setting/world/time that doesn't interest me can be a reason to not buy the book (and I can't get many English books in German libraries). I liked Carey's Kushiel books but her new world doesn't appeal to me, I never buy books with a WW2 setting no matter how much I may like an author else - that sort of thing.